My Dad had a life-long love affair with the game of baseball. He taught me early to appreciate the game through the miracle of radio, a game he declared imagined best through the ears, rather than the eyes. During the 1950s, radio was superseded by television as the medium of choice for baseball. Daddy lamented that his vision of play was much bigger than that captured by camera and viewed on our twenty-seven inch black and white television, but caved to NBC’s legendary televised Saturday afternoon “Game of the Week”, broadcast from a fledgling station out of nearby Panama City, Florida. Over the years, he became a devoted viewer while I drifted into a greater love for the game of basketball.
There were stories of Dad, as a young man in his late teens and early twenties, who played with one or more of the loosely organized chicken-shit (his words, not mine) farm clubs that sprang up throughout the rural south in the thirties. I knew he had been a first baseman known as a heavy hitter. But at his funeral, I was to learn much more about his prowess, and his insistence on fair play.
When the last of family and friends had offered parting condolences, I stayed on for a private farewell. But I wasn’t alone. An elderly gentleman, leaning heavily on a hand crafted, snake-head cane, slowly approached. He introduced himself by his given name only, and Mr. Woodrow declared: “must’ve got yo height from Red. You favor him in a lady-sort of way.”
I smiled, remembering the pride I’d felt at my nickname, Little Red. While everyone in the south grew up with a nickname, most left them behind as we navigated bigger worlds, often far away from our beginnings. My eyes are blue, but my hair has never been red. Then Daddy’s nickname fit: he was a tall redhead with ruddy complexion and blue eyes that invited merriment when he laughed.
Mr. Woodrow paused, balancing on his cane, gazed across the cemetery into the brilliant colors of day’s end, and pointed in the direction of one tombstone, and then another, declaring Daddy was among some damn fine company. His rheumy eyes tearing, he looked back in time. The promise of a good story ruminating, I invited him to sit with me on the tailgate of my truck.
He began in the slow drawl of southern storytelling, the familiar cadence my ear hears with considerable clarity in a time when much else passes as noise. Some truth, some not, but always deftly embellished for the sake of a good story.
“Your dad and me, along with some of these ole boys, were teammates.” He pointed out several tombstones, calling each man by the name with which teammates had tagged him. “Red anchored first and damned if he didn’t have a eagle eye for a fast ball. Myself, I played short. And along then, I was quicker than a pissed off rattler.” He paused, and tapping the ground with his cane, he leaned into the heart of the story.
“Red kept a batting average to envy. Had a reputation as a long ball hitter. In today’s way of commentating, his bat would be called a ‘game-changer’.
“There was this particular game I well recall. And, this is where your daddy comes big into the story. Picture bottom half of the ninth us down by one, me on second, two outs. Nothing but pride riding on the outcome. Your daddy came to the plate and the other side’s center fielder snuck back beyond the track in hopes of snagging any long ball, putting the game away. Him a jiffy hero. Well, I’m here to tell you Red connected with a fast ball ― and at the crack of his bat everybody leaped to their feet, watching that cheating son of a gun get under that ball twenty yard beyond the tracks. Both dugouts emptied and bless Jesus, Red was the first to get to him. And I can tell you, Charlie Spears weren’t a man you wanted to cheat out of a home run.”
Mr. Woodrow chuckled and got slowly to his feet. “Some said afterward that the dust we stirred up that Saturday didn’t settle until the following Tuesday.”
Mr. Woodrow and I parted, and I headed home, remembering my own story of Daddy and me driving from Port St. Joe to Tallahassee to watch two major league teams, in route south for spring training, play an exhibition game at Centennial Field. I was nine or ten, and I wish I could remember the names of the teams, but that part of the memory has faded. But not the pride I’d felt sitting next to him. The good that has never left me.
Happy Father’s Day